Monsieur Poirot, ou etes-vous?


A famous British play, “The Mousetrap” was recently put on at the Academy for Performing Arts in Hong Kong, to the delight of British drama fans in general, and Agatha Christie fans in particular.

The play has been running for 60 years in London’s West End, and can only be performed outside that area once per year anywhere in the world. So finally getting it to Hong Kong was quite a coup.

Ms Christie is probably best known in this part of the world for her crime novels, especially those featuring her Belgian policeman turned private detective, Hercule Poirot. Some of these have been turned into successful films such as "Murder on the Orient Express" and "Death on the Nile".

Hong Kong is also famous for its own mysteries, and some would tax the powers of even the greatest investigator. Unfortunately, we do not have our own equivalent of Monsieur Poirot. However, we are blessed with a ministerial accountability system, now 10 years old. So there will always be a politically accountable official responsible for getting to the bottom of things.

First we have the case of the unauthorised building works at the home of our Chief Executive C Y Leung. There are apparently six of them, all fairly trivial in the overall scheme of things, and really only notable because the issue of such works was highlighted in the CE election back in March. However, we have as yet no explanation of who authorised them, who implemented them, and what is going to be done about them.

But building works, whether authorised or not, do not just turn up. The owner or occupier has to request them, and someone has to build them. Clearly this is a case for our Secretary for Development Paul Chan. It is well past time for the community to have an update on progress of the investigation.

The second, and much more serious case, concerns the illegal basement under the Kowloon Tong home of former Chief Secretary, and rival CE candidate, Henry Tang.

Now, unlike the minor works in Leung’s home, construction on this scale requires plans to be prepared by an Authorised Person. Those plans require approval by the Buildings Department and there are official inspections while the building works are in progress.

Pictures widely circulated on the internet clearly show that piling to provide for the basement was incorporated in the original construction and must have been designed in. If I have seen them, presumably the Buildings inspector has seen them too.

So, our intrepid investigator, if such we have, has a pretty obvious set of questions to find the answers for. Did the original plans as submitted show the basement as well as the piling, or just the latter? Was it technically possible and practicable for the basement to have been added later, or must it have been included from the outset? How was such an enormous illegality, if already present, missed on the final inspection?

A fairly straightforward case, also for Chan, and indeed the Buildings Department report was supposed to have been finished in May. When might we all be allowed to know what is in it?

One wrinkle, and possible reason for delay, is the addition of an ICAC investigation of the case. With experienced investigators involved in a relatively straightforward inquiry, it should be possible for the community to know the outcome in the very near future.

The third mystery is in some ways the most serious of all. How was it possible for a company to be paid $72 million -- $1 million per month for six years -- for preparation of teaching materials for the proposed new mandatory subject of national education.

Spending of taxpayers’ money is a subject taken very seriously in Hong Kong. Indeed the Public Finance Ordinance is Chapter 2 of our laws, second only to the Interpretation and General Clauses law. The Financial Secretary has major responsibilities, and the powers to make regulations to help him in the discharge of those duties. There are strict limits on how much money can be spent before a public tender exercise must be conducted. Were all the proper procedures followed, and the limits respected?

Our unfortunate Education Minister Eddie Ng may not welcome the idea of investigating actions of his predecessor. But our Financial Secretary throughout the exercise was a constant -- John Tsang. Perhaps he is better placed to uncover the facts.

But if he too is reluctant then there is a fallback: the Director of Audit David Sun has a duty to ensure that all public servants have secured value for money. Given that the whole subject is now on the scrapheap, the answer would appear to be negative. But let us have a full investigation and detailed report before jumping to conclusions.

These three mysteries are very different in significance, but they have one important factor in common: silence is not an option. The people of Hong Kong have a right to know Whodunit.


 
Mike Rowse
email: mike@rowse.com.hk